MIAMI - Being born with an underdeveloped right hand didn't keep Chad Bentz from fulfilling his baseball dream. Neither did club feet discourage Jim Mecir, nor extra fingers and toes stymie Antonio Alfonseca. All three relief pitchers made it to the big leagues, and none think of his birth defect as any big deal.
What astounds them, though, is this: They ended up on the same team. The Florida Marlins.
"I think this is a marketing ploy," Mecir said, laughing.
The Marlins weren't trying to make a social statement when they signed the three pitchers this winter, or cash in by becoming the poster team for the March of Dimes. Their goal simply was to improve their bullpen, and Alfonseca, Mecir and Bentz were part of the team's most notable offseason rebuilding project.
"It wasn't something we even contemplated, though there was knowledge they had had some challenges," Marlins general manager Larry Beinfest said of the coincidence. "It never really even occurred to us when they were signed."
But when pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Jupiter, Fla., today, Mecir and Bentz said they will draw comfort in knowing - for the first time since they picked up a baseball - they will no longer stand out alone from the rest of their teammates. They will have each other, with whom to share their stories of inspiration and perseverance.
"Right on," Bentz said.
Bentz, a Juneau-Douglas High School graduate, has some of the best stories to tell, many of them having nothing to do with his lack of a right hand.
The 24-year-old left-hander is one of only two Alaska high school players to play in the major leagues, and for obvious reasons.
With its long, harsh winters, Alaska is hardly suitable as a breeding ground for budding baseball talent. Polar bears, yes. Ballplayers, no. And bears were plentiful around Juneau, where Bentz grew up. His surprise confrontation with a bear on a fishing and hunting trip a few years ago still haunts him.
"Ever since then, I've had nightmares about bear maulings," Bentz said. "That's how I got one of my nicknames - 'Bear."'
When he didn't have his eye out for bears, Bentz was perfecting his baseball skills, even though his fellow Little Leaguers regularly teased him about his hand. Bentz said the ridiculing and taunting almost caused him to quit at one point. But he stuck with it.
"I took offense to it when I was young," Bentz said. "But then I just started using people's insults or comments as motivation to prove them wrong. If they said I couldn't do something, I would try everything to be able to do it, just to see the reaction. It's nice to prove people wrong."
Bentz learned to manipulate his glove, cradling it at the end of his right arm and deftly transferring it to his left hand after throwing, the same way Jim Abbott did during his 10 major-league seasons. Abbott, who also was born without a right hand, threw a no-hitter with the Yankees and ended his career with 80 victories.
Bentz was no slouch with the bat, either.
Because Alaska's weather forced him to practice indoors much of the year (the all-dirt baseball "fields" were so concrete-hard from sub-freezing temperatures that Bentz still says he has the scars to prove it), he and his younger brother worked on their hitting inside the unheated family garage. They reinforced "little paper balls" with utility tape, tethered them to a ski pole, and worked on their cuts.
"We'd be out there with our coats doing that, and you could see our breath," he said. "If baseball was played indoors, I would be a Hall of Famer."
The practice paid off. Bentz still holds the Alaskan high-school record of 23 career home runs, though he essentially swings with just the left arm while using the right to keep the bat propped and balanced.
But it was at Long Beach State where Bentz became a pitcher exclusively. The Montreal Expos selected him in the seventh round of the 2001 draft, and he eventually worked his way up to the big club for the first time last season. He made his major-league debut last April in South Florida against the Marlins, retiring Abraham Nunez on the first pitch he delivered.
One of his first coaches in the Expos organization was Wayne Rosenthal, the former Marlins pitching coach who now serves as the team's roving minor league coordinator. Rosenthal said Bentz "made the hand seem like it was just a normal thing."
"He started cracking jokes about himself before anybody else did," Rosenthal said. "I called him the 'one-armed bandit.' He came up to me one day, with a serious look on his face, and said, 'Coach, I got this new pitch to show you. It's a split-finger fastball.' I said, 'You want to throw a split?' I mean, he had a good slider.
"Anyway, he put the ball between the two stubs on his right hand and threw the ball. He doesn't think it's a handicap, so why should anybody else? He makes it easier for people to handle it."
Bentz went 0-3 for the Expos last season before being sent down to the minors, but he did collect a single in one of his two at-bats. The Marlins signed him to a minor-league contract after the Washington Nationals (nee Expos) cut him in December. Considering the number of additions the Marlins have made to their bullpen (relievers John Riedling and Todd Jones also were signed this winter), there's a good chance Bentz could start out the season at Triple A Albuquerque.
"We really paid a lot of attention to rebuilding the bullpen," Beinfest said. "We knew that we wanted to try this, to have a bullpen with experience and depth, because it's just something we haven't had. It hasn't been as sexy as the Carlos Delgado signing, but at the same time it's very important to us."
Part of that bullpen rebuilding process also included the signings of Alfonseca and Mecir.
Alfonseca, who was born with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot, is well known to the Marlins. He spent five seasons with the team before being traded to the Chicago Cubs at the end of spring training in 2002 for Dontrelle Willis and Julian Tavarez. He was with the Atlanta Braves last season.
Alfonseca saved 102 games for the Marlins, including a majors-leading 45 in 2000. He gives the Marlins insurance in the closer's position if Guillermo Mota doesn't succeed in his new role.
Mecir joined the Marlins after spending the five seasons as a set-up reliever for the Oakland A's. The 34-year-old right-hander also has pitched for the Mariners, Yankees and Devil Rays. Mecir has dealt with his handicap for so long that he no longer considers it one.
But he is reminded of it every time he pitches. His knees are in near-constant pain, an indirect result of learning to compensate for his physical deficiencies. He underwent surgery for his club feet before the age of 10, but was left with a severely atrophied right calf muscle, a right leg that is one inch shorter than his left, and a right foot that is a size-and-a-half smaller than his left.
"The harder part has been the last couple of years," said Mecir, who briefly contemplated retirement midway through last season. "It's been a problem with my body adapting. I wasn't using my right leg a lot because other parts of my body were taking over."
Mecir, who attended Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, began his professional career as a starter but was turned into a reliever because "it would take a toll on my arm." But the pain in his knees has persisted.
Mecir, who throws a screwball and has a knack for retiring left-handed hitters, likely will be used in short relief.
There could come a time this season when all three - Mecir, Alfonseca and Bentz - find themselves sitting in the same Marlins bullpen.
"It's an amazing story," said Hanna Fink, executive director of March of Dimes of South Florida. "They're heroes. They're people who show you can overcome."